The following post is a chapter from our book, Working in Thailand: How to Ditch the Desk, Board the Flight, and Land the Job, written by Patrick Taylor and Karsten Aichholz.
Each Thursday over the next few months we’ll be releasing one chapter for free. If you don’t want to wait for us to release each chapter, you can pick up the book in its entirety on Amazon.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes by Adam Williams and Steven (last name withheld for privacy), bosses.
Among many groups of expats in Thailand, you’ll hear a common refrain when it comes to doing business in Thailand: don’t.
Come here for a holiday, by all means. Retire here, even. But there are few opportunities for foreigners here when it comes to doing business. In the cynic’s defense, the odds are certainly against you.
The kingdom is littered with foreigners who failed. There are no shortage of horror stories out there.
But this book is not about how to fail at running a business in Thailand. If there’s a message pervading the whole book, it’s that there are opportunities in Thailand for those with the wits, the gumption, the perseverance, and the smidgeon of luck required to make the most of them.
And in this chapter, we’ll meet two expats who are not just successfully running large businesses in Thailand, but running them at the highest levels of upper management: one who was assigned here from abroad to oversee local operations, and another who worked his way up the chain within Thailand.
Adam Williams is regional manager for a medium-sized multinational engineering survey company. He arrived here on the much sought-after expat package—shipped off by HQ to oversee their foreign operations.
His journey began with an innocuous note on a bulletin board.
I joined NB Surveys straight after university after seeing a job advert on the notice board. The head office is in Aberdeen and primarily serves the oil and gas industry. So after working for a year in the North Sea, I was sent to the office in Brunei, where I worked for two years. We then started to get work in Thailand, so I moved here to do that.”
Adam soon carved out a comfortable niche for himself, building his own little Southeast Asian operation within the company.
Because I was the only guy from the company here in Thailand, I became the focal point for all aspects of the business and when we eventually registered an office here, I had established a good network of contacts within the industry. I played a significant part in growing the operation in Thailand into a multi-million dollar company, so when it was decided to expand in the region I guess I was a logical choice.”
Let’s-call-him-Steven took an entirely different path to eminence. Moving to Thailand fifteen years ago, he became involved in a number of small-business ventures before landing his current position as managing director of a privately-owned company specializing in food/beverage and retail operations.
Steven’s company operates in
seven countries and more than 200 locations, (encompassing) five brands. I have 400 staff in Thailand—350 retail staff and fifty head office staff.”
Steven did what so many expats claim to be impossible—he worked his way up within the Thai system.
I have lived in Thailand for fifteen years, so the local knowledge was existing. Language is still a barrier at times, but getting better as time goes on.”
His advice to those looking to make a go of it in Thailand is simple, but very much contrary to the prevailing wisdom of many expats in Thailand:
Start at the bottom and work your way up to understand the industry and culture/people of Thailand.”
However, it should be pointed out that Steven’s rise to fame and fortune would be a lot trickier in some fields than in others. As Adam notes:
For the oil and gas industry, it’s almost impossible now for an expat to find work in Thailand, unless they are sent here by their international company or are hired for a short term project specific contract. Local people have gained a wealth of knowledge and experience in this industry over the years and expats, for the most part, are no longer required.”
In terms of qualifications, neither of our correspondents stressed any hard and fast requirements. Adam holds an Engineering degree, and Steven stresses the importance of experience and local knowledge over letters after your name. However, as in Western countries, a business-related degree and an MBA are both useful certificates to hold.
The main requirement for the job is ultimately being able to keep up with the hefty and ever-changing workload, and to ensure that a company of many different components continues to run smoothly.
And, Adam says before taking a deep breath, here are some of things he is responsible for:
Presenting our services to potential new clients, putting tenders [bids] together, site visits, trade shows and exhibitions, training new engineering staff, QA [quality assurance] checking of engineering drawings, hiring, firing, reviewing new technologies we could implement, fire-fighting when serious problems arise, reviewing financials, and occasionally, when we are very busy, back on the tools to do the survey work.”
Steven’s days are also pretty hectic.
Day to day activities are meeting landlords, franchisee partners, media partners. Lots of financial meetings and guidance of staff. Ensuring smooth operations of shops and giving customers a good brand experience.”
Obviously the work itself will vary depending on the field you’re in and the company’s own organizational structure, but the bones of the job will generally be the same—namely overseeing staff, fire-fighting, financial meetings, and keeping things on an even keel.
As one would expect, such high-pressure positions tend to be handsomely rewarded in terms of salary, although just how handsomely depends on several factors. As Steven explains
200,000 baht to 300,000 baht [is a realistic expectation] for management in a proper company, and 300,000 baht and up for senior executives to MD/CEO roles. High-level foreigners (CEO/MD) would earn 500,000 baht and up monthly.”
Salaries in Adam’s line of work are even more volatile.
The price of oil affects the salary people are paid. The size of the company also plays a part. The operators like PTT, Chevron, Shell, and Total would pay more than their sub-contractors. When all’s said and done, though, expect to be paying tax in the high end bracket. $75,000 per annum [about 200,000 baht per month] upwards, depending on the size of the company.”
Perhaps surprisingly, it seems that this high-paying, high-level work isn’t quite enough for our two interviewees.
Steven maintains interests in several other companies, including a Bangkok restaurant.
Meanwhile, Adam has fingers in a whole bunch of pies.
I’m looking into starting something with 3D printers. Also, in the early stages of writing a children’s book. Perhaps the most exciting of all is my new-found love of baking. Again, it’s early stages, but I think I’ve just about perfected my crumpet recipe, so next step is to get them sold. Probably through home delivery, farmer’s markets, or a BTS stall, but the goal would be to have them as the foundation for a chain of little bakeries or perhaps through Villa Market [a chain of high-end Thai supermarkets] or similar. Look out for us, we’re called Nice Bit O’Crumpet.”
Perhaps, then, the biggest driver of success in business in Thailand is less your skills and qualifications, but more the insatiable desire to build and create. And of course, the lure of a nice bit o’crumpet.
Now, on to You
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